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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1325

In 1924, Yuriy Tynyanov, a Formalist critic, said of Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo: Or, Letters Not About Love: “The book is interesting in that a single emotional core provides the basis for a novel, and a feuilleton, and a scholarly paper.” The comment covers the contents of this unusual mix of a novel. Shklovsky, an unwilling Russian emigre in Berlin in 1922, uses his own painful experience of unrequited love for Elsa Triolet, the estranged Russian wife of a Frenchman, as the core of a novel expressing his sense of dislocation in the West and his views on literature and his literary comrades.

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The novel is arranged as a series of letters to Elsa (Alya is her Russian nickname.) A second subtitle Shklovsky uses, “The Third Heloise,” refers to the stories of the love of Heloise and Abelard in the Middle Ages and of the lovers in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise (1761). In both these stories, the lovers are devoted to each other; they are frustrated by outside forces. The third Heloise is not so satisfactory a beloved; Shklovsky’s love is frustrated by the woman herself. She cannot love him in return. While she grants him the opportunity to write to her (and occasionally to telephone), she makes the stipulation that he must not write or speak about love.

This prohibition motivates the actual content of most of the letters: Shklovsky’s ideas about literature and his sketches of Russians in the Berlin literary scene. The result is a tale of a barely suppressed but strong love for a woman of whom the lover himself rather disapproves. The story serves as a structural line for matters that engage him perhaps even more seriously: the world of literature and literary theory. Yet each of these topics somehow returns to the topic of love.

The first edition of the novel includes twenty-nine letters. (Five letters were added in later editions, while other letters were subsequently omitted.) Seven of the twenty-nine are from Elsa. (She actually wrote them, later expanding the one on Tahiti into a book of her own.) The rest are by Shklovsky, and they are autobiographical, representing his feelings and thoughts during this painful but productive year in Germany. They include an elegy for Velimir Khlebnikov, a highly experimental poet friend of his; letters to his literary friends at home, urging them to work; scenes of Berlin life, especially in contrast to the war, revolution, and civil war he has just lived through at home; his own literary ideas; responses to Elsa’s letters; and occasional violations of her prohibition. Other letters describe Aleksei Remizov, the publisher Zinovyi Grzhebin, Andrey Bely, Aleksandr Blok, Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, Stendhal, Fyodor Dostoevski, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others. He is always interested in their ideas on literary technique as well as in catching, in words, their images as human beings.

The letters are highly metaphorical. It is as if he compares everything and everyone he sees to the inner compulsion of his love. The metaphors are part of his new theory and are thus fresh and full of new insight.

For example, in letter 4, the elegy for Khlebnikov, Shklovsky writes about the weather, linking it first to politics and then to love. He says that he hates cold weather, that Peter betrayed Christ because he wanted to warm himself at a fire and got caught up in the public opinion around the fire. Russia, he says, is cold; it (and he) betrayed Khlebnikov, who was generous and idealistic, like Christ himself. He remembers that Khlebnikov, too, loved a woman who did not respond to him. He says, ironically, that the soldiers who killed Christ and the state which let Khlebnikov go without a place to lay his head were not responsible; they “did not understand Aramaic.” In short, ordinary people do not understand poets or what poets understand. They are cold, and their desire to warm themselves makes them lack compassion. The soldiers who killed Christ were like the nails, not responsible for the death. Love is like the nails, he says, but love has made men write books, bringing civilization. This network of interrelated metaphors expresses Shklovsky’s anger against the conditions that let Khlebnikov perish, his ironic attitude toward Elsa’s failure to love, and his own transformation of his pain into the novel.

The zoo metaphor in the book seems to have begun as a theme for a group of hostile character sketches of emigre types that he abhorred, but it changed as the novel took shape. Since the Russians in Berlin lived near the zoological garden, the animal figures occur naturally in the setting. He prints Khlebnikov’s poem “Menagerie” as an epigraph to the whole novel, a vivid poem in which all the animals remind the poet of human beings. Shklovsky says that he doubts that people have the right to hold their distant relative, the ape, in prison without a trial. Again, the metaphor is political, but he moves it to the personal realm as well: Shklovsky is himself caged by Elsa’s prohibition.

Shklovsky applies the animal imagery to literature: “As a cow devours grass, so literary themes are devoured; devices fray and crumble.” Hence, the constant task of writers is to renew traditional forms, and that task leads them to new material in art. Free artists, he says, are like monkeys. It is hard for monkeys and artists to live in the world. (“Walking on sidewalks is hard for monkeys—a way of life foreign to them.”) It follows, then, that human women are incomprehensible to these creatures.

Elsa, the incomprehensible woman here, becomes a metaphor for all that Shklovsky hates in Berlin as an exile. Her European manners and bourgeois tastes demand that he eat with a fork and keep his trousers pressed. He, in a long-standing Russian literary tradition, contrasts East and West, Russia and Europe. Recent Russian experience of war and revolution makes such fastidiousness seem mad. Yet he worries that as exiles, Russian men will lose their talent as surely as they lose their women. They need to be at home; the local is the vital in art. The consumerism of Europe that Elsa represents is vulgar in the context of Soviet Russia’s deprivations.

Letter 22 is one of the most serious discussions of literary theory. Art is a world of “independently existing things,” not a “window on the world.” Words and their relationship to one another, “thoughts and the irony of thoughts, their divergence”—such are the content of art. Shklovsky says that complex works of art grow out of simpler forms, and shifts to new forms come when all the contrasts in older forms are exhausted. As a result of the exhaustion of psychological motivation in the novel, emphasis has shifted to individual components, as in a variety show, and “the master of ceremonies emerges as the hero.” A self-conscious exposing of the devices takes place, like a Czech clown whom he saw in a circus, who parodied and exposed all the other acts. In this way, the narrator in Zoo becomes the most important figure, the letters exist as separate individual components, and the writer makes explicit remarks on the devices that he is using to achieve his effects. Thus, to emphasize the importance of letter 19 (a letter from Elsa), Shklovsky employs a witty device: He crosses it out with a big red cross and tells the reader not to read it.

The last letter is addressed to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee; it is a request to return to Russia. “I cannot live in Berlin,” Shklovsky says. He feels bound to the new Russia. The book has been about “misunderstanding.” The unresponsive, Europeanized woman is set against the vivid images of the literary life in the Soviet Union and the narrator’s passion for his own language. His loneliness in the book can be relieved only by a return to his native land.

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